In the movie, “The Monuments Men“, a motley collection of (mostly) American artists, sculptors, choreographers and architects foil evil Nazis bent on looting and destroying Europe’s precious art treasures. They find secret caches and troves of looted art as they chase the retreating Germans in the closing stages of World War II.
Some of that is true, but the whole truth is much more complicated – not to mention more fascinating and separate tale worth telling.
A lot of what the Monuments Men found was not just French, or Belgian or Italian art treasures, but also priceless Bavarian and Prussian artifacts, stored by concerned Germans themselves; dedicated men and women who hoped to protect them from conquering hordes like the Russians, Americans and British bearing down on them – and even from the Nazi hierarchy bent on stealing them.
In a 1978 interview, near the end of his life, George Leslie Stout (the inspiration for George Clooney’s character Frank Stokes in the movie) described in detail what was found, at what location, and by whom.
At Merkers-Kieselbach, for instance, the Monuments Men found what the Germans had hastily stashed of their own treasures – from museums around the Third Reich, Berlin in particular, to safeguard them against destruction from Allied bombings.
“I think early April of 1945, and there had been a last minute evacuation of works of art from Berlin,” Stout said. Curators of German museums had been among those organizing the evacuation. “Besides the works of art from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the museums in Berlin, the Kaiser Friedrich Museum [now Bode Museum] and the other museums – the Ancient Museums. There were also scores and costumes from the Berlin Opera and there were deposits from the Bank of Germany, and a wide variety of foreign currency notes and notes on the Reichsbank.”
After the war, the impoverished residents of the area grabbed the opera costumes and wore them daily – since their own clothes were in tatters.
Stout, who also confirmed the grim discovery of barrels full of gold filings from concentration camp victims, said it took 40 ten-ton trucks to move the Merkers finds to nearby Frankfurt for safe-keeping (Allied soldiers were often found to be just as likely to loot anything of value as any enemy soldier or sympathizer). Also found at Merkers was 250 tons of gold bullion – which stole any headlines the artistic discoveries might have otherwise received.
Another important Monuments Men find – not mentioned at all in the movie – “was at a place called Bernterode, which is not very far from Weimar,” Stout recalled, “and that was a repository containing what were the old Prussian treasures from Potsdam.”
He explained, “It was a miscellaneous collection and included tapestries, a large number of books, with relatively fine bindings, volumes, editions, a group of maybe a hundred or more paintings, the old standards of the old Prussian regiments with all their medals stuck on the staff.”
But perhaps the most astonishing discovery was that of four embalmed bodies: Paul Von Hindenburg, the former field marshal and President of Germany (and Hitler hater), who had died in 1934; his wife Gertrud, who had passed away in 1921; and the remains of King Friedrich Wilhelm I – dead since 1740, and his son King Friedrich the Great (officially, Friedrich II) of Prussia, who had died in 1786. The bodies were in huge ceremonial caskets, with orbs, scepters and crowns. It took Herculean efforts to winch the lead-lined caskets out of the deep salt mine caves.
The third big find, Stout recalled, was in Alt Aussee, Austria, which was pretty much as depicted in the movie, although Austrian art treasures comprised a significant part of the find..
“There were some pretty prime things there, the Ghent Altarpiece, for example , the fine Michelangelo [Madonna] from Bruges,” he said. “I won’t try to run down the list.” He couldn’t resist adding, “and that great Vermeer from Vienna from the Czernin Collection. That’s a little sample.”
Besides those treasures, the labyrinthine mine was full of fine antique furniture, sculptures and even draperies – about 10,000 items in all.
The mine had been rigged by Germans to be blown up, but under what circumstances, there is some debate. “Hitler’s orders were somewhat confusing,” Stout said. “One order was, ‘This must never fall into the hands of the enemy,’ and there were others that weren’t quite clear.” What was clear, however, was that the Austrians sabotaged the demolition plans – but not because they were art lovers, concerned about the loot stashed in the mine. The Austrians were concerned about damaging the mine, which for seven or more centuries had largely funded the town’s way of life.
To the Austrians, Stout said, the demolition plan amounted to nothing less than “the destruction of their entire life, their whole manner of living, and they were not going to put up with it.”
The villagers pulled off their acts of sabotage right under the noses of many members of the Nazi high command, including Adolf Eichmann, who were holed up there – it was one of the last redoubts of the so-called “Alpine fortress” – through the end of the war.
Stout was generous in praising the many unlikely heroes who, wittingly or unwittingly, helped the Monuments Men in their quests to find, preserve and repatriate the spoils of war – insofar as art was concerned. But he wanted to emphasize one point – often lost in discussions of this subject:
“I would just like to make clear that this whole activity was not an undertaking on the part of the United States to save works of art,” he said. “It was an undertaking under the Hague Convention and under the Rules of Ground Warfare, which require that all educational properties in combat areas or other areas of occupation must be regarded as private property, exempt from exploitation, seizure, and so on.”
He added, “That’s why it was done. It was done as a routine necessity by the United States Army and it had been done prior to our arrival in the European theater.”
Stout also applauded thanked an unlikely ally in the struggle to preserve and protect art: The enemy!
“It had been done very faithfully and with great correctness by the Monuments Service of the German army,” he noted. “They were very, very conscientious. Of course, they had nothing to do with what the men far above them were able to steal. But as to protecting monuments and works of art in the combat area of the German army, they had done a very, very good job.”
That might story make an interesting movie in and of itself.
February 8, 2014